Senior citizens go digital as Korea moves toward contact-free culture

(SEOUL, South Korea) — Jae-Yeol Tae recalls the time he broke into a cold sweat after noticing a long line behind him as he struggled to order a hamburger on a local fast-food restaurant’s self-order kiosk.

“I kept reading the instructions on the kiosk, but they were difficult to follow. I asked for help from an employee, but she flat-out rejected me and told me to use the machine,” Tae, 78, said. “But now that I’ve practiced how to use a kiosk many times, I have no problem ordering a burger or fries on my own.”

The South Korean senior is not the only one who has felt powerless and at the mercy of such self-serve digital kiosk machines. Adults ages 65 and older have enrolled in the senior digital education program at Seoul-based Seocho Joongang Senior Welfare Center to learn how to use the devices in this modern digital era.

Seocho District’s senior community center has been providing digital education classes and resources for willing seniors over the past two years. Since September 2019, more than 1,500 senior citizens have learned how to use digital machines and devices like self-serve kiosks through the program.

The educational kiosks at the welfare center provide various scenarios for the students to practice real-life simulations. The scenarios are divided into nine different themes, which range from purchasing tickets at movie theaters, airports and bus terminals to ordering food at fast-food restaurants and cafes.

“We’ve significantly expanded educational programs focused on maneuvering digital devices to help better the livelihood of senior citizens since the start of the pandemic,” Yu-rim Kang, 25, a social worker at the welfare center who guides seniors in more active digital use, told ABC News. “Elders often have a hard time in public places due to the sudden shift towards a more contact-free culture.”

After two years of enduring the pandemic, a large number of restaurants and stores have adopted self-service electronic kiosks as alternatives to keep personnel costs down while continuing to keep their businesses running. The size of the domestic kiosk market is expected to grow 5.7% annually by 2023, according to the report from Shinhan Investment Corporation.

Digital education for senior citizens has become a necessity as South Korea continues to accelerate the digitization of its public sectors in accordance with the nation’s pandemic regulations. Anyone who wants to enter any sort of public facility must check in using their personal QR code on their smartphones to provide proof of vaccination.

At the start of 2022, Seoul introduced the “cash-free bus” initiative designating 418 buses to only accept transportation cards or mobile tickets. The project offers passengers instant mobile tickets by scanning QR codes at bus stations, but it makes public transportation more complicated for less tech-savvy senior citizens who typically carry around cash only.

“I’d like to say if we senior citizens don’t want to fall way behind the rest of society, we need to be prepared for any future changes,” Hye-sook Park, a 74-year-old student who once had technophobia, told ABC News. “Don’t be afraid to try and learn new technologies.”

Seocho District’s senior community center is not the only one promoting digital education for older adults. In an effort to support digitally-isolated senior citizens and diversify accessibility to these programs, Seoul runs educational programs on various digital devices including smartphones, kiosks and even virtual reality sets.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government also recently announced that it will invest over $1.68 million to further expand education resources necessary for senior support.

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